As featured in Edition 40, available here.
BY RAVI MAINI (1st year - French and PAIS - Leicester, UK)
This April France is heading to the polls for the first time since 2017 to decide who will be its president for the next five years. Since Macron’s centrist movement La République en Marche disrupted the political climate in 2017, and his head-to-head with Marine le Pen of the Front National (now the Rassemblement National), it is fair to say that a lot has changed. France has since grappled with numerous challenges, including terrorism, the Gilets Jaunes protests, and of course Covid-19.
Even for someone like Macron who, as a former Minister of the Economy, had some government experience under his belt, the presidency has been far from an easy ride. Twists and turns include uproar over pension reforms and, more recently, the French government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Vaccine passes have especially proved controversial. Just a few weeks ago, he even went as far as to say: “the unvaccinated, I really want to piss them off”. Whilst his political opponents rushed to condemn his direct remarks, it looks as if his message has been getting through so far, with more than 90% of France’s adult population double-jabbed.
Even with some successes, it isn’t surprising that he faces many challenges. What is significant though is that his serious political opponents, if polling is to be believed, are almost exclusively on the right and far-right of the political spectrum. To the right of Macron is Valérie Pécresse of the Républicans. Currently polling at 16%, she is hoping to get through to the run-off in the 2nd round, where it is suggested that she would pose the greatest threat to Macron’s chances of re-election. Now to delve into the realm of the far-right. Potential challengers here are Le Pen once again, this time under a supposedly revitalised party name of ‘National Rally’. This was part of an attempt to detoxify the perception of the party as racist and antisemitic, especially under the previous leadership of her father, Jean-Marie le Pen. More surprising is the rise of the journalist Eric Zemmour. His rapid jump in the polls to 14% has taken aback many centrists, as well as Le Pen herself, who is said to be concerned about how many of her voters Zemmour will steal come April.
If Marine le Pen is considered to be far-right, then Zemmour unfortunately goes much further. His distrust of the media and fondness for conspiracy theories display all the elements of Trumpism, imported into France. This includes having convictions for hate speech after his comments on unaccompanied migrant children, saying: “They’re thieves, they’re murderers, they’re rapists. That’s all they are. We must send them back. These people cost us money”. This highly inflammatory rhetoric has been compounded by his endorsement of the ‘great replacement’ conspiracy– the unfounded idea that ‘native’ French people are being replaced by Muslim immigrants, who are systematically undermining the values of the French Republic.
The challenge to Macron from the left has received far less attention in comparison. Indeed, much of the coverage about the left is about its decline. The spectacular fall from grace of the Parti Socialiste stands out especially; it controlled the presidency last in 2012, but now is polling at just 3%. One exception is Jean-Luc Mélenchon on the far-left, who is doing a little better, but still well below what would be needed to make it to the second round of voting.
The point being here that France has swung quite significantly to the right since 2017.
The entry of Zemmour into the race has led to suggestions that French political discourse has been well and truly ‘Zemmourised’ – with all candidates shifting themselves to the right so as to not lose their voice in a campaign which is being touted as a fight for France’s survival going into the future.
With the left divided and splintered between several candidates who, as of yet, have failed to be able to unite around a single candidate, they stand little chance of seriously challenging Macron.
Given there’s infighting galore on the left, and even somewhat between the right, Macron remains the favourite to win, and he might just cling onto power until 2027. Whatever happens, one thing is clear: the next president will have to grapple with questions of national identity, pandemic recovery, the EU, and much more.
It’s now up to the French people to decide who is best for the job.
Image: Flickr (EU2017EE Estonian Presidency Follow Emmanuel Macron)